By Lee Zimmerman
Ray Stevens is known mostly as a musical funnyman; no surprise, really, considering the novelty songs that he took to the top of the charts during a successful string of hits that dominated the radio waves throughout the 1960s and ’70s. These days, songs such as “Ahab the Arab,” “The Streak” and “Gitarzan” might not find favor with those of a politically correct persuasion, but back in the day, they established Stevens as an artist with a clear affinity for sarcasm and satire. Indeed, after a career that spans some 65 years, Stevens remains committed to the cause of keeping his listeners entertained and engaged. After beginning his musical journey strictly as a songwriter, he got his big break when he was signed to Mercury Records in 1961, and over time he gained fame not only for the aforementioned comedy classics, but also with several “serious” songs as well — among them, “Everything Is Beautiful” and “Misty.” They were both big crossover hits that helped to establish him as both a country superstar and a reliable purveyor of pop songs suitable to be shared with any type of audience.
These days, at the age of 83, Stevens remains as active as ever. He made plans to release four albums in in the last year alone, and, equally impressively, all four — Great Country Ballads, Melancholy Fescue (High Class Bluegrass), Slow Dance and Nouveau Retro (What’s Old Is New Again) — will be on the proverbial record store shelves by the time you read this, and also available as a special-edition box set, Iconic Songs of the 20th Century (The Soundtrack of Our Lives). Clearly, he’s showing no signs of slowing down. “I really enjoy making records,” he insists, noting that he’s owned his own studio for several years, and that because he doesn’t rent it out, he’s able to go in and record whenever he has the whim.
“Since I can’t get out on the road, I might as well get in the studio and make records,” he says.
Then again, Stevens has never been idle. A multi-faceted entrepreneur who’s made his mark not only as a singer and all-round entertainer, he’s also found success as a producer, songwriter, arranger, television host and the owner of a massive Nashville entertainment venue he cleverly calls the CabaRay Showroom.
Not surprisingly then, his efforts have paid off, as the impressive number of awards and accolades he’s accumulated can easily attest. To date, he’s amassed no less than two Grammy Awards and nine Grammy nominations, not to mention his various inductions into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Christian Music Hall of Fame. Add to that, a star on the Music City Walk of Fame and several video awards for his concert collections as well. Of course, the fact that he’s sold some 40 million albums is, in itself, a credit to his craft and credence as a highly accomplished performer.
He notes with pride that the memorabilia found throughout the environs of the CabaRay reflect his decades of making music and his highly regarded standing in showbiz circles.
“There are murals covering just about every wall inside the showroom,” Stevens explains. “There are pictures of the session musicians and session producers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. There are pictures of musicians and producers that I think helped make Nashville into Music City USA, because that’s where it started, in the studios. I’ve got some just terrific old pictures that I found just by rummaging around, as well as some that my friends gave me to blow up and put on the walls as well. It’s really interesting. A lot of people just walk around the venue before and after the shows, looking at some of the old black and white pictures. Because Nashville is Music City USA, these musicians that made it happen are very important, and it’s a lot of fun just to look at them and relive the memories.”
Stevens admits that he does find himself feeling nostalgic at times. Of course, with a career that’s risen to such peaks, it really seems to be no surprise. “I think everybody feels that way at some point,” he muses. “The older you get, the more you reflect on the past. And, of course, I’m not to the point where I don’t look to the future also. But it’s fun to think back and remember some of those old songs.”
After more than six decades, Stevens has reason to reminisce. He’s witnessed first hand the way the music business has evolved over the ensuing decades, in Nashville in particular.
“Everything changes,” he shrugs. “That’s a foregone conclusion. I like some of the changes, but I don’t like some of the others. There are too many brains out there thinking about music, and some of them you agree with and some of them you don’t.”
So too, given Stevens’ early success with songs that were of a comedic nature, there may still be those who don’t give him credit for his other accomplishments overall. When asked about that disparity, Stevens says he’s not concerned with whether people consider him a serious performer or simply an artist who’s akin to a class clown.
“Well, I don’t know if there’s a difficulty or not as far as their image of me is concerned,” he reflects. “There probably is, but I don’t worry about that. I just do what I want to do, and let the chips fall where they may. I enjoy my work, and if people have trouble making the changeover in their minds from comedy to other kinds of music, well then, I’m sorry about that. But you know, maybe they will come around one of these days and see that I’m able to do both. Who knows? Again, I just do what I want to do and hope for the best.”
While Stevens insists that he has no plans to retire, he does say that he doesn’t plan to tour at this point. “I’ll never say never, but I don’t think that I will,” he suggests. “That’s one of the reasons I built the CabaRay, so that I can perform at home. The CabaRay is 10 minutes from my house. That’s pretty convenient. It’s the place where I can go to work, and I don’t have to get on airplanes or buses or book the hotels and shepherd around a band and all that. The road is fun when you’re young, but it’s gets to be pretty tiresome the older you get. On the other hand, I’m not a golfer. I’m not very good at it, and I don’t like to do something I’m not good at.”
Like many other venues, the CabaRay was forced to shut its doors during the pandemic, but reopened on September 4, which marked Stevens’ return to its stage. Of course he’s also aware of the other tragedies that Nashville has suffered through over the past several months as well. “It’s been hit so hard in the last year, even aside from the COVID,” Stevens reflects. “Between the bombing on Christmas Day, the terrible tornado, the flash flooding… it’s just horrible.”
Still, there is a certain showbiz axiom that dictates that it’s best to always keep the audience wanting more. In a way, then, the need to shut things down has created added anticipation for the re-openings as they occur.
“I believe in that,” Stevens insists. “But that only applies to certain aspects of the business, as well as certain times in your life.”